By BOB FORREST
STONEWALL — So much for the privileges of rank.
Stonewall has been one of the surprises in Oklahoma baseball this spring, ascending the rankings at warp speed over the past month despite playing one of the state’s toughest small-school schedules. Although they lost two of their best hitters (Paul Sweeney, who is playing for Tupelo this spring, and Brian Monroe, who opted not to play baseball) before the season began and opened the spring with question marks at almost every position, the Longhorns had climbed to No. 4 in Class A in the most recent CoachesAid poll — trailing only Roff, Sentinel and Pioneer and ahead of such traditional powers as Rock Creek, Silo, Fort Towson, Central-Sallisaw, Rattan and Crowder.
But when the district playoff pairings came out a couple of weeks ago, Stonewall (14-11 after Tuesday’s loss to Roff) was given the “honor” of hosting a Stratford club that enters the postseason at 25-3, while teams below the Longhorns in the rankings have much softer opening-round opponents. Stonewall will face Stratford in a doubleheader Thursday beginning at 4 p.m., and the loser of the double-elimination showdown will make an early playoff exit after a solid regular season.
“We know Stratford is a tough club,” first-year Stonewall coach Chuck Barton said. “If we got into it looking toward regionals, we’re likely to go home early. We’re taking Stratford seriously.”
It is, however, a draw Barton and his club should have expected, considering Stonewall’s recent luck — or lack of it — with the committee charged with making playoff assignments in Oklahoma basketball and baseball.
Last year, the Longhorns were shoved into districts with eventual state tournament teams from Roff in both basketball and spring baseball and were, in fact, eliminated by the Tigers in both sports. Earlier this spring, Stonewall’s boys basketball team lost in the district round to a tough Stratford club that entered the playoffs with just four losses, and the Longhorns were eventually eliminated in the regional tournament.
“I’m scared to death of Stratford,” Barton admitted. “They’re athletic, and everybody I’ve talked to says they’re a good ballclub. It’s not a very good district draw for either one of us.”
For Stratford, the playoff draw was also tougher than expected. The Bulldogs enter the postseason unranked despite one of the state’s best winning percentages in any class, and veteran coach Mark Qualls said his club and Stonewall probably deserved a better fate.
“It’s a tough, tough draw, especially the way (the Longhorns) are playing right now,” Qualls said. “(The committee) didn’t do us any favors, but we just have to go compete.
“Stonewall has been impressive, especially the last two weeks,” Qualls added. “We’ll have to play our best to beat them.”
The Stonewall-Stratford showdown is easily the most interesting playoff pairing in a week that should see a couple of other area powers advance with little problem.
Roff, which improved to 27-5 with Saturday’s victory over Class 2A No. 1 Dale in the finals of the Roff Spring Invitational Tournament and Monday’s sweep of Dickson and Madill at the Dickson Festival, will face Fox at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday, while defending Class B spring champ Tupelo (27-4 after losing to 6A power Tulsa Union and 4A No. 1 Ooologah at Saturday’s Owasso Festival) will host Paoli and Mill Creek in a district tournament beginning at 2 p.m. Thursday.
At Stonewall, Barton has seen his club rise from a No. 11 preseason ranking to its current high water mark, and the Longhorns have done it the hard way. They come into the postseason having faced ranked opponents in nine of their last 10 games, and during that streak Stonewall beat Crowder (currently No. 11 in Class A), Oktaha (No. 5 in 2A), Rock Creek (previously No. 1 in Class A and currently No. 5), Lookeba-Sickles (No. 1 in Class B), Red Oak (No. 7 in Class B) and unranked Moss and lost to Tupelo, Silo (No. 6 in Class A), Dale and Roff.
“We’re playing better ball now than we have all year,” Barton said. “I knew there was a lot of talent here. We’ve just tried to put them in the right situation to win. We need to keep it going through the playoffs.
“We’re battle tested,” he added. “We know what it’s like to play in big games. We just have to go get it done.”
Stonewall (which won a state title in Class B in 2000 but hasn’t been back to the state tournament since) has five seniors — Nick Skokos, Jared Pharr, Ryan Denson, Cole Carter and Brandon Ross — on the roster, with Denson (a move-in from Putnam City) and Brandon Ross (who didn’t play in the fall) having filled the void left by the loss of Sweeney and Monroe.
“Brandon has probably been my biggest surprise this spring,” Barton said. “He didn’t play for us in the fall, and I let him come out this spring. He’s been a great defensive player in center field, and he’s driven in some big runs. He’s just an all-around team player.
“Ryan Denson has also had some big hits for us,” Barton added. “The last few weeks, you don’t know who’s going to step up.”
Despite Stonewall’s solid core of seniors, a pair of underclassmen — junior Bo Scribner and sophomore catcher J. P. Maples — have been the team’s offensive leaders this spring. Scribner is the team’s one legitimate star and its undisputed leader, while Maples bats third in the lineup and has become of the area’s top all-around catchers in his first full varsity season.
“J. P. is hitting around .402, and you can always count on him to get a hit, no matter who the other team is throwing,” Barton said. “Defensively, he has a strong arm, but the talent is so deep in this area that sometimes he gets lost in the shuffle.”
Scribner — the team’s clean-up hitter — began the spring as the Longhorns’ No. 1 starting pitcher, but Barton said he hopes to use the hard-throwing right-hander in a closer’s role in the playoffs, finishing for starters Jake Munday (4-1) and Jared Pharr (who both rely on off-speed pitches to get opposing batters out).
“Jared is the kind of pitcher who keeps you off balance — he doesn’t haven’t have a lot of velocity, but he has a good work ethic, and he hits his spots,” Barton said of Pharr, who enters the playoffs with a 2-5 record after having pitched against some of the toughest opponents on Stonewall’s schedule this spring. “Jake is another one who doesn’t throw hard, but he’s effective with his curve, and he mixes his pitches well.
“When we bring Bo in after those guys, it looks like he’s throwing 110 (miles per hour),” Barton added. “Bo has been a real leader for us, even though he’s a junior. We’ve centered our offense and defense around him, and he’s stepped up.”
Stratford is led by senior T. J. Gaines and junior Garan Qualls, who have combined to go 13-1 on the mound this season and who, along with R. B. Lasater and catcher Chase Devereaux, lead an offense that can score runs in bunches.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said Qualls, whose club has won three tournaments this spring but hasn’t played a schedule anywhere close to the caliber of Stonewall’s. “There are other places we could have gone (for the first round of the playoffs) that made more sense, but we just go play where they tell us to play and do the best we can.”
Qualls said son Garan will probably start Thursday’s opener (where he is expected to face Pharr), and Gaines will come back in Game 2.
“We’re not overpowering on the mound,” Qualls said. “We just hope to get people to hit the pitches we want them to hit. We’re not going to strike a lot of people out.”
Barton, meanwhile, said Thursday’s two games, while obviously the most important his club has played so far this season, could be a key to a long playoff run for the Longhorns.
“I really feel like if we play like we’ve been playing we could go to the state tournament,” he said. “We have to get out of district first, but if we catch a break here and there, we could go.”
By BOB FORREST